The Weight Words Carry: On “Brown,” “BIPOC,” and other Transfused Labels


As many of our regular readers can observe, we cannot get enough of Sinthujan Varatharajah’s words in the magazine—provided that we are able to ask them a different question each time. In this specific contribution, they address the unquestioned transfusion of U.S.-forged labels, namely “brown,” and “BIPOC” (Black, Indigenous, and people of color), and their failure to aptly and usefully describe the political reality of other contexts— in Sinthujan’s case, Germany.

One day, I found myself in the midst of a space that was designed as a “brown space.” It was specifically designed for people who were considered from the region usually named “South Asia.” Most of us who were present were to different degrees brown-skinned. Some others, however, were rather beige-skinned, calling into question different understandings of what “brown” really means for different people, in different places and different times. Depending on our place of origin in the large region stretching from the Indian Ocean all the way to the Himalayan region, our melanin levels differed vastly. These differences didn’t seem to matter in this space though and how it was politically and geographically framed. We were supposedly all “brown” here. This communality was more than just a political idea, it also translated into a feeling. At first glance most people seemed cheerful and happy to see one another here, in a white European country.

Despite looking, at least to my eye, greatly different, most of us sat there, unified by an idea of not just being from a particular region of this Earth, but also of sharing a particular identity and culture in the West.

All of it was summarized by the term: brown.

This “brown space” was part of a larger queer event in Berlin. This event was specifically addressing what they called “queer BIPOCs” (the label was kept and pronounced in English). It was an event for people who collectively yearned to create a safer community space for people who didn’t just share queerness, but also non-whiteness. The latter was summarized under an English-language acronym that was foreign to the country the event was taking place in: BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color). The term originates from the settler colonial and post-plantation/enslavement context of the United States, but has been used by racialized activists for the last few years in Germany, too. While it was first imported as POC (people of color), and shyly made its way into the anti-racist vernacular of the country in the mid 2010s, it grew into BPOC shortly after, adding on the “B” for “Black,” when anti-Blackness was given more prominence in local anti-racist debates (similary shaped by discourses in the United States). In 2019 finally, the “I” for “Indigenous” miraculously arrived in Germany, too. How precisely wasn’t really clear to me, since there was no similar event that was covered in German media on an Indigenous people-related issue in the U.S. at the time. And yet it was somehow here. Within a few years, the term wasn’t just used by a fringe segment of anti-racist activists, but had to a certain degree at least even been successfully mainstreamed, so much so that some white Germans even use it today.

By way of it, it didn’t just mirror the evolution of the terms in the United States to address a U.S.-centric lived reality, but mimicked it somewhere else. In other words, the adjustment was made towards realities that were specific to the United States, not Germany. These two countries however not only differ in their specific historic context, but also in their languages, cultures, economics, and demographics. So how does a U.S. term live on outside its place of origin?

B | What Black means in Germany and Europe is commonly undisputed. It mainly refers to people of African descent, grouping millions of people of vast cultures, histories and areas under a single term on the premise of descendance from a shared continent. The fault lines however become palpable when a melanin-rich person of non-African descent comes into the picture. It also runs into tensions when non-Black North Africans claim Blackness by way of their shared geographic claims to the African Continent. However, since Germany is very scarce in melanin, potential ruptures as such rarely occur in the public realm, and never in such ways that they lead to a wider public reckoning of the limits and trappings of these colonial vocabularies.

I | Indigenous is an umbrella term which, in the United States and the wider Americas, refers to populations and nations that lived on the continent prior to the arrival of European settlers. It is a descriptor that speaks towards a relationship towards land and time. However, with time, it has also become an active identity marker that unites different Indigenous nations in their struggles against European settler colonialism. But can indigeneity function without further explanation outside of that specific land and history it refers to? Particularly outside a traditional/known settler colonial context? And outside of the Americas?

Although settler colonialism and indigeneity are not unique to the Americas, the way the term has been established in the English language is in reference to different phases of colonization in the Americas. But how is it measured, demarcated, and named elsewhere? Can there be other claims to the same word in the same language from other people in different places of the world too? How much meaning can a single word carry?

Furthermore, if we use Indigenous as a synonym for a racialized person, what happens to Indigenous people who are “white-looking” (in our eyes), like the Sami people in Northern Europe? In Germany, for instance, there are currently five ethnic minority groups who are legally considered Indigenous communities with specific legislative rights: Danes, Frieses, German Sinti and Roma, as well as Sorbs. Besides Sinti and Roma, they are globally speaking all considered as white (by non-whites). Are they only locally Indigenous? Or can they be considered Indigenous at a global scale too? The issue becomes even more complex when in different parts of Europe, the concept of indigeneity is appropriated by fascist individuals, groups, and organizations vis-a-vis non-white refugees and immigrants to stoke fears of “white genocides” and “population replacement.” In Sri Lanka, Malaysia and Myanmar, similarly, the concept of indigeneity has been appropriated by majoritarian populations to assert supremacist systems of laws and governance.

Varatharajah Funambulist 1
In mobilizing various formats to articulate ideas, Sinthujan Varatharajah often relies on Instagram stories. These stories unpack and articulate reflections on the past and present political reality of Tamil refugees (around the world, or specifically in Germany) or on the Tamil struggle for liberation in Eelam. In doing so, Sinthujan’s concise and precise words are read by a few dozens of thousands of people, many of whom are explicitly grateful for their insights and for sharing them on a somewhat accessible medium. Sinthujan’s words, which often describe violence, terror, and trauma, are deliberately contrasted with reassuring background photos taken from the soothing aspects of their daily life in Berlin. For this reason, we asked them to send us some of these photos, which purposely come in a standard Instagram story format to reproduce this contrast, as well as to pay homage to this particular way of disseminating knowledge. / All photos by Sinthujan Varatharajah.

POC | In the United States, the label POC is used for people who are neither Black nor Indigenous. This includes a wide range of people who trace roots in places that are neither in Africa or Europe. Unless they are descendants of white settlers from South America who falsely claim to be people of color in the U.S., POC are usually phenotypically differentiable from people of European descent.

The term “people of color,” however, is vague and includes millions of people whose geographies, histories and cultures are so vastly different that it begs the question of the usefulness and complicities we partake in when flattening such vastly diverse populations by throwing them all within the same category—not for better analysis, but for ease in speech.

POC isn’t a static term. The color line in the United States has become blurrier since the September 11, 2001 attacks, and the rise of Islamophobia there. This, in turn, led to different West Asian and North African groups questioning their positions in the racial order of the European settler colony. The former had traditionally been considered as white by racist United States immigration and civil laws and, as such, had enjoyed privileged access and mobility in compared to groups that were considered non-white, in particular Black descendants of enslaved people and Indigenous people. Since 9/11 and the rise of attacks against Muslims in the United States, however, they have started arguing for a separate census category, trying to make sense of their new social and political reality by distancing themselves from whiteness and entering and claiming a position within the vague category of people of color. This movement doesn’t come without consequences. It shifts not only the position of concerned groups, but also that of all others, including those who now have to ‘make space’ within the large category of people of color.

In Germany, POC is used in a similar way than in the U.S.. Bluntly put, it includes anyone who is not of African and European descent. Since the largest non-ethnic German groups today comprise populations
from in and around the Mediterranean and other parts of West Asia, the term person of color is also mainly claimed, used, and occupied in Germany by people from these regions: people who actually lack what color is made of, i.e. melanin. Most racialized people in Germany are in fact racialized rather by their hair color than any difference in skin tone to Europeans. This roots back in how understandings of race and whiteness are still deeply tied to Nazi beliefs in Aryanness. In practical terms this means that, in Germany, the term people of hair color would be a more apt descriptor of the dominant demographic groups besides ethnic Germans.

This lack of nuance and shift in subjects has a lot to do with the actual quality of racial diversity in Germany. The country is, in fact, rather ethnically diverse than racially. Yet, in its own insularity, it mistakes its ethnic diversity as racial diversity. This means that phenotypical differences are usually discussed on a rather small provincial scale. The pace of racial discussions in Germany thus often lacks depth, nuance, and geographic scope. It is slow and incredibly limited, thus even more dependent on contexts, where an actual racial diversity exists and creates rich bodies of knowledge and work. These then get borrowed, or rather stolen, to be transplanted in contexts where they do not make sense unless you bend them until they make sense. Another significant difference is that non-whiteness in Germany is often confused with non-ethnic Germanness. This opens pathways for other European minorities, such as Poles, Albanians, Greeks, and others to make claims to being part of the wider spectrum of POC here, as it sometimes happens here. It is even considered a plausible argument by some, confirming the quality of discussions within the country’s wider society.

Varatharajah Funambulist 2

In Germany, BIPOC has within a short period of time become a widely used way of framing and articulating racial inequalities. But, critically, it has actively morphed into becoming an identity marker that substitutes and overwrites other pre-existing identities, such as ethnic, cultural, religious, and other identity markers. This has arguably taken much faster and intense roots anin German-speaking contexts, such as in Germany, Switzerland, and Austria, than in different English-speaking contexts. Much of it has to do with language: the fact that the acronym BIPOC doesn’t just have a foreign origin, but is also used in a local language with a foreign word. It isn’t pronounced as [beːˈˈiːˈpeːˈoːˈtseː], using the local pronunciation of letters, but as [bi:aɪ:pi:oʊ:si:] the U.S. English one.

Using words in a foreign language, particularly (U.S.) English as the result of U.S. political and cultural imperialism, changes the emotional relationships to such words.

It can lead to inaccurate and wrong usages of these, more so than it would most likely be the case if these words were coming from (or at least be translated into) a language closer to home; a language used with more care and sensitivity from within a specific context. Another side effect of using words from another language and in that language but outside of this very language context is that it separates concerned groups and their lived realities from the vocabulary used by those at the forefront of the struggles to make sense of these realities. Most racialized people in Germany still do not know the BIPOC or POC, their meanings and histories, and how it relates back to them, and yet it is used in a top down way, assuming there is no value in communicating around this language, its vocabulary, and its framing. It therefore reinforces class, education, language proficiency as well as mobility differences and inequalities, and becomes a signaler for a particular social and often also economic locus when being used.

If the argument is that the German language has not evolved as a language to accommodate the realities of racialized people as much as English did, it brackets another history: how the English language has been shaped and forced to change over time by the very people who have been subjugated by this language and its European speakers. This should serve as a reminder that no language changes or accommodates its social fringes unless the fringes claim their space within a language instead of exiting it completely. The responsibility then lies in the non-ethnic German German language speakers to push the language to its supposed boundaries and break it where it needs to be broken, instead of taking the much easier road of importing vocabularies that do not just come from a different language, but also also speak and reflect to different realities.

These “dilemmas” in speech, thought, and framing bring us to the more obvious questions we need to ask ourselves: can local words hold global weights? Can we fill them with more and different meanings from elsewhere (other histories) without necessary adaptations or changes to these very words?

Can they live unchanged elsewhere without distorting the places they arrive in as well as the places and histories they leave behind? Can we overburden words? Can we put so much meaning into them that they would implode? Can we put so much weight on them that they would explode? Can we stretch them to the extent that they become meaningless and therefore no more than empty shells? Can we tear them to the extent that they start breaking? That the B secedes from the I and the P from the O and C?

And can the U.S. be a template for the world? In other words, can U.S.-centric vocabularies, developed in a settler colonial language to make sense of this settler colony really help us make sense of realities outside of it? Are they sufficient to explain the world outside of the U.S.? Are they even sufficient to explain the situation in the settler colony itself? Can they be useful words to make us speak to different places, people, times, and histories? Can they survive their own exportation, implantation, and appropriation? Fall victims to the imperialism that has given birth to them? And does solidarity and coalition-building have to look this way?

Does it have to depend on the flattening and erasure of differences, or on the appropriation of colonial vocabularies? Can we rely on an alphabetic order made out of five letters to describe more than eight billion people on this planet? Can solidarity be solidarity when built on and dependent on reductive frameworks? What happens when one reality can be universalized whilst others cannot and must not be? How does it weigh on our word counts to explain our words? Can we speak about a place, in all its complexities, nuances, and contradictions without needing to seek validation from more dominant places? Can we speak without having to constantly accommodate others, to mirror others? Without needing to do forced comparisons and measurements?

In our quest to render the complexities of this world better translatable, to limit our own word counts and essentially shorten explanations, to be better heard and understood globally, we have ironically come to follow a very imperial logic: creating and adopting a normatized and standardized vocabulary, thought and speech pattern. But we can’t force the entire word to fit into a vocabulary that is already considered reductive in its very place of origin and, as such, constantly renegotiated and challenged. ■